No nonsense Florence blazed a trail for traditional cookin’

editorial image

Florence Irwin was born in Lurgan in 1883 and studied “Cookery, laundry work and housewifery” at the famed Atholl Crescent College in Edinburgh.

When she returned to Northern Ireland she got a job as an itinerant cookery instructress under the department of agriculture.

Florence travelled to towns and villages and set up shop for six to eight weeks in each area. She carried a portable “Mistress” American stove with her, as well as equipment for classes of 20-24 women. She taught cooking, laundry work and dress making.

Florence quickly became known as the “Cookin Woman” and she documented all her own recipes and the ones she gathered into a cookbook aptly entitled “The Cookin Woman”. The book contains recipes for a wide range of dishes, from cutlets of cod’s roe, to Irish stew, eggs fried in batter, yellowman, stewed dulse and crème caramel. All these ingredients have become trendy again. Lots of leading restaurants now serve crispy eggs so Florence was ahead of her time.

She also includes a method to prepare a beverage called “Bull’s Milk” provided by a Mr Sam Henry of Coleraine. To make it, place some ground oats in a crock pot and add water. “When fully acidulated by the action of the atmosphere, it was poured off and reserved for use as a beverage.” This isn’t one I’ll be trying anytime soon!

She quotes from “Reids Irish Travels” of 1822: “On seeing me enter (a cabin where the inmates were having dry potatoes only for dinner) the man arose and expressed his regret that he had neither whisky nor milk to give me. “Maybe the gentleman will taste the bull’s milk”. She signified her fear that it was too sour “but such as it is” said smiling. I declined the civility, but knowing how much these poor people are gratified by a stranger eating with them, I took a potato which, not being boiled enough, I put down and took up another one, but all were equally hard. The man instantly put one into the ashes to have it better cooked for me. “We always have our praties hard; they stick to our ribs and we can fast longer that way.” There’s some advice for anyone doing the 5:2 diet!

She has a recipe for pickled nastursium seeds – which I came across coincidentally recently in a contemporary cooking magazine. Seven days after the flowers have left them, pick the buds and place in a brine for three days, dry them off and then pack into jars and top with spiced vinegar. This wouldn’t be out of place in a top end restaurant but it’s a recipe that was documented in the 1920’s.

Nettles are at their best now for eating as they’re young and fresh. Florence suggests using them in champ (“a popular dish with old-fashioned folk”) and this makes perfect sense. Pick a teacupful of nettle leaves and wash well. Boil them in a half a pint of “new milk” with salt and pepper for 10 minutes. Add this to mashed potatoes and beat until smooth. She makes a very sensible suggestion that “each person then makes a hole in the centre of their helping, into which a lump of butter is put.”

You’re a woman after my own heart, Florence!

She adds a poem to the recipe

“There was an old woman

who lived in a lamp,

she had no room

To beetle her champ

She up’s with her beetle

and broke the lamp

And then she had room

to beetle her champ.”

One of my favourite things in the book is a recipe for pickled butter – a great way for the “one cow woman” to preserve her butter when the milk is plentiful. A salt brine was produced and placed in a crock and left overnight. When you’ve butter to spare, wrap it in muslin and drop it into the crock, week by week. Cover with a lid.

When you need the butter, wash it in cold water and then soak in cold water for an hour.

This week’s recipe is an adaptation of one of Florence’s for hot apple cheesecakes. I’ve been served these in many a church hall and love them. There’s no cheese involved – just a buttery pastry base (no need to churn your own!), stewed apple and then a macaroon topping of almond, sugar and egg white. Serve them warm straight from the oven.

The old ones are the best!